Welcome Hotel

Terry Durack
The dining room lacks the charm of the hotel's old-school bar.
The dining room lacks the charm of the hotel's old-school bar. Photo: Edwina Pickles

91 Evans Street Rozelle, NSW 2039

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Opening hours Mon–Sat noon–10pm; Sun noon–9pm;
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments eftpos, AMEX, Mastercard, Visa
Phone 02 9810 1323

The demarcation line runs right down the middle of this lovely old inner-city pub, dividing what could almost be parallel universes. To the right of the corridor is your pub of yore, with chatty blokes propped at the bar; gleaming taps of craft beer and meat tray raffles to support the local fishing club.

To the left is the pub of the here and now, with its fashionably muted dining room decked out in shades of Armani, its paper-over-white-clothed-tables and its printed menu of saffron tagliatelle and fried zucchini flowers.

The O'Keeffe family bought the 136-year-old Welcome Hotel in April, and are in the process of realigning the pub experience with a greater focus on food. Hence Liam O'Keeffe recently lured promising young chef Daniel Mulligan, an eight-year veteran of the two-hatted Pilu at Freshwater.

Feather-light Kipfler potato gnocchi with pork and fennel ragu.
Feather-light Kipfler potato gnocchi with pork and fennel ragu. Photo: Edwina Pickles

On deck for less than two months, Mulligan has put together a subversively Italian menu that echoes his Freshwater heritage while stopping short - so far - of putting on the famous Piluvian suckling pig.

Good little appetisers (salmon croquettes, as seen at Pilu) and terrific semolina-dusted Fuel Bakery bread come unrequested; nice touch.

It's a pub, right? So let's start with a couple of oysters ($3.50 each) and something to drink. The Sydney rocks arrive stranded on a dish of ice with a pink vinaigrette, fulfilling their brief without going beyond it, and sadly, the pre-dinner drinks arrive so late they can no longer be called pre-dinner.

Then comes a big stack of noisily crunchy pane carasau (Sardinian crisp bread) with crumbled pecorino Sardo, good Sicilian and Ligurian olives and two small-gauge and not dissimilar salami from Salumi Australia ($15).

Kipfler potato gnocchi is feather-light and puffy, tossed with a deeply flavoured ragu of pork and fennel ($24) that is so thoroughly together it's like eating a comforting stew with some equally comforting mashed potato.

Another standout dish is an entree of New Zealand king salmon ($20), which has been baked in a crust of rock salt (as it is at Pilu) then flaked into luminous, soft, pink chunks, strewn with green leaves, dehydrated olives, pink grapefruit segments and dibs and dabs of chilli aioli. Subtle, shimmering and summery, it's an idea worth pinching from your ex-boss.

A new, improved wine list will be in place in a matter of days, and from what I've seen, it's a cracker. Put together by award-winning former Pilu sommelier Lara Caraturo, it's a slow passeggiata through some of Italy's more interesting regions as well as some good local labels.

Mulligan cooks well, sending out well-rested, pink-hearted Victorian lamb rump ($32) teamed with logs of roasted salsify, golden carrot puree and a good, meaty jus. Crisp-skinned snapper ($33) is set off nicely with baby artichoke hearts, although the accompanying saffron-steamed Cloudy Bay clams are too firm to be fun.

An affogato dessert ($14) is fine, the vanilla ice-cream, Frangelico and Golden Cobra espresso melting into a pleasantly creamy, coffee-flavoured soup.

By day, the light is lovely throughout the hotel and the restaurant's shady, palm-fringed covered terrace is a drawcard. But it's the blokes in the old-school bar that are the real drawcard. When asked why nobody serves a pony of beer (a 140-millilitre glass) any more, one replies straight-faced: ''Because they slip through your fingers.'' Another references Tony Abbott, referring to the public bar as ''the suppository of all wisdom''.

At night, the dining room lacks the charm of their blokey humour, and the table service, in these early days at least, is slow to the point of negligence. A wine glass is brought still warm from the dishwasher; you wouldn't catch the boys putting up with that for their beer.

It makes me wonder if we need the demarcation line after all; whether we couldn't coexist over both craft beer and fine wine. Instead of being torn between old and new, the inner-city pub could become a happy intermingling of cafe, wine bar, meeting place, beer hall and dining room; the so-called ''third place'' between home and office so cleverly strategised by Starbucks. Just a thought - but a welcome one.

Best bit The charm of an old Aussie pub.
Worst bit Phoned-in service.
Go-to dish
Kipfler potato gnocchi with pork and fennel ragu, shaved pecorino, $24.

Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.